Elongated spasms

This week, AL Kennedy composes begging letters and officiates at a showbiz wedding

Well, I’m still alive. I think. A combination of stress and research now means that I’ve developed a wibbly eyelid and two different head ticks. I think the eyelid annoys only me, but the head ticks are a bit much for the general public. The main one involves my head shaking itself in a perfectly understandable ohpleaseno kind of motion. I’ve tried to adjust this into a more positive yeswhynotifIhaveto noddy thing – but this often simply causes the two to combine and then involve me lashing about in elongated spasms that no doubt translate as fallingdownawell fallingdownawell.

Meanwhile the first Pencilfest at Warwick – organised by student writers for student writers – went off rather well and was, I’d have to say, better organised than several long-established festivals I could name. I think their choice not to have a giant parrot mascot was probably a mistake, but otherwise all was delightful, the sun shone with enthusiasm and nobody died or spontaneously combusted during my event (comedy about writing) which is always a plus. My other comedy gigs ranged between – “This is grand and I wish to do it for the rest of my life,” and the rather more downbeat “You were mostly here last month when I did much of the same material, weren’t you? Please bear with me and I shall not be so slapdash again – it’s just that my brain can only produce so much Funny in a 4 week period, given that all I’ve been doing is working. I have been unforgivable and will now make a noise like a hoop and roll away.” I am packing the notebook with new Funny, even as I type this. Can’t be tedious for the lovely ladies and gentlemen.

It’s been drawn to my attention – by my bank statement – that, although I’m ricocheting off the UK’s corners and expending energy I’m borrowing from future generations, I’m not actually earning any money at the moment. Or not quite enough to balance my perfectly reasonable outgoings. Another week of this and I’ll have to stop waiting for something to turn up and try to manufacture something – despite attending two festivals next week and disappearing into London again for research purposes. I feel that if I don’t sleep or go to the toilet, spare time could be created for additional lucrative endeavours.

I should, of course, be tapping away at a new (and entirely unprofitable) short story – and may tonight – but the rest of the daylight hours may well be occupied in writing begging letters to people who could assist me with the next novel’s more factual and elusive bits. I am fantastically bad at asking for help, don’t seem to be able to do it in person at all and tend to feel that emotionally blackmailing busy people to do work for you for nothing is fairly inexcusable. Beginning a letter to a total stranger with “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t deserve to live…” is perhaps not a good idea and so much rewriting ensues.

The high point of last weekend was, naturally, the marriage of Christine Cloughly (dance teacher, social butterfly and accountant) to Paul Sneddon (comic) which took place both on Saturday and Sunday. First, the conventional service – with the traditional interval for watching Dr Who – and then they joined many comics and other excellent people at The Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh for a second, entirely unnecessary showbiz marriage at which I was proud to officiate in my capacity as ordained (by mail) minister. They’re two splendid people, have been happy together for ages and will, I hope, be even happier now.

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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